Back | Next

Chapter Seven

"Why . . . make things more . . . harderest . . . than need?" Chaumel muttered as he steered the chair away from the plain. IT found the root for the missing words and relayed the question to Keff through his ear-link. "Why must you make things more difficult than they need to be? I want to talk . . . in early . . ."

"My apologies, honored one," Keff said haltingly.

He had sufficiently recovered from the bolt to sit up on the end of Chaumel's chair. The magician leaned forward to clasp Keff's shoulder and pulled him back a few inches. Once he looked down, the brawn was grateful for the reassuring contact. From the hundred meters Carialle had last reported, they had ascended to at least two hundred and were still rising. He still had no idea how it was done, but he was beginning to enjoy this unusual ride.

The view was marvelous. The seven-meter square where Brannel and his people laid their gathered crops and the mound under which the home cavern lay had each shrunk to an area smaller than Keff's fingernail. On the flattened hilltop, the brainship was a shining figure like a literary statuette. Nearby, the miniature chairs, each containing a colorfully dressed doll, were rising to disperse.

Keff noticed suddenly that their progress was not unattended. Gold and black eye spheres flanked the silver chair as it rose higher still and began to fly in the direction of the darkening sky. More spheres, in different colors, hung behind like wary sparrows trailing a crow, never getting too close. This had to be the hierarchy again, Keff thought. He doubted this constituted an honor guard since he had gathered that Nokias and Ferngal outranked Chaumel. More on the order of keeping watch on both the Silver Mage and the stranger. Keff grinned and waved at them.

"Hi, Mum," he said.

"It'll take you hours at that rate to reach one of those mountain ranges," Carialle said through the implant. "I'd like to know how long he can fly that thing before he has to refuel or rest, or whatever."

Keff turned to Chaumel.

"Where are we . . ."

Even before the question was completely out of his mouth, the view changed.

" . . . going?"

Keff gaped. They were no longer hanging above Brannel's fields. Between one meter and another the silver chariot had transferred effortlessly to a point above snowcapped mountain peaks. The drop in temperature was so sudden Keff suffered a violent, involuntary shudder before he knew he was cold.

"—Ramjamming fardling flatulating dagnabbing planet!" Carialle's voice, missing from his consciousness for just moments, reasserted itself at full volume. "There you are! You are one hundred and seventy four kilometers northeast from your previous position."

"Lady dear, what language!" Keff gasped out between chatters. "Not at all suitable for my lady fair."

"But appropriate! You've been missing a long time. Confound it, I was worried!"

"It only felt like a second to me," Keff said, apologetically.

"Fifty-three hundredths of a second," Carialle said crisply. "Which felt like eons to my processing gear. I had to trace your vital signs through I don't know how many power areas before I found you. Luckily your evil wizard told us you were going to a mountain. That did cut down by about fifty percent the terrain I had to sweep."

"We teleported," Keff said, wonderingly. "I . . . teleported! I didn't feel as if I was. It's effortless!"

"I hate it," Carialle replied. "You were off the air while you were in transit. I didn't know where you had gone, or if you were still alive. Confound these people with their unelectronic toys and nonmechanical machines!"

"My . . . mountain home," Chaumel announced, interrupting Keff's subvocal argument. The silver magician pointed downward toward a gabled structure built onto the very crest of the highest peak in the range.

"How lovely," Keff said, hoping one of the expressions he had gleaned from Carialle's tapes of the broadcasting drones was appropriate. By Chaumel's pleased expression, it was.

At first all he could see was the balcony, cantilevered out over a bottomless chasm, smoky purple and black in the light of the setting sun. Set into the mountaintop were tall, arched glass windows, shining with the last highlights of day. They were distinguishable from the blue-white ice cap only because they were flat and smooth. What little could be seen of the rest of the mountain was jagged outthrusts and steep ravines.

"Mighty . . . not . . . from the ground," Chaumel said, pantomiming something trying to come up from underneath and being met above by a fist. IT rewound the comment and translated it in Keff's ear as "This is a mighty stronghold. Nothing can reach us from the ground."

"No, to be sure." Well, that stood to reason. No mage would want to live in a bastion that could be climbed to. Much less accessible if it could be reached only by an aerial route.

The balcony, as they got nearer, was as large as a commercial heliport, with designated landing pads marked out in different colored flush-set paving stones. One square, nearest the tall glass doors, was silver-gray, obviously reserved for the lord of the manor.

The chariot swung in a smooth curve over the pad and set down on it as daintily as a feather. As soon as it landed, the flock of spy-eyes turned and flew away. Chaumel gestured for Keff to get down.

The brawn stepped off the finial onto the dull stone tiles, and found himself dancing to try and keep his balance. The floor was smooth and slick, frictionless as a track-ball surface. Losing his footing, Keff sprawled backward, catching himself with his hands flat behind him, and struggled to an upright position. The feel of the floor disconcerted him. It was heavy with power. He didn't hear it or feel it, but he sensed it. The sensation was extremely unnerving. He rubbed his palms together.

"What's the matter?" Carialle asked. "The view keeps changing. Ah, that's better. Hmm. No, it isn't. What's that dreadful vibration? It feels mechanical."

"Don't know," Keff said subvocally, testing the floor with a cautious hand. Though dry to look at, it felt tacky, almost clammy. "Slippery," he added, with a smile up at his host.

Dark brows drawn into an impatient V, Chaumel gestured for Keff to get up. Very carefully, using his hands, Keff got to his knees, and tentatively, to his feet. Chaumel nodded, turned, and strode through the tall double doors. Walking ding-toed like a waterfowl, Keff followed as quickly as he could, if only to get off the surface.

Each time he put a foot down, the disturbing vibration rattled up his leg into his spine. Keff forced himself to ignore it as he tried to catch up with Chaumel.

The silver magiman nattered on, half to Keff, half to himself. Keff boosted the gain on IT to pick up every word, to play back later.

The glass doors opened out from a grand chamber like a ballroom or a throne room. Ceilings were unusually high, with fantastic ornamentation. Keff stared straight up at a painted and gilded trompe l'oeil fresco of soaring native avians in a cloud-dotted sky. Windows of glass, rock crystal, and colored minerals were set at every level on the wall. There was one skylight cut pielike into the ceiling. Considering that his host and his people flew almost everywhere, Keff wasn't surprised at the attention paid to the upper reaches of the rooms. The magifolk seemed to like light, and living inside a mountain was likely to cause claustrophobia. The walls were hewn out of the natural granite, but the floor everywhere was that disconcerting track-ball surface.

"This (thing) . . . mine . . . old," Chaumel said, gesturing casually at a couple of framed pieces of art displayed on the wall. Keff glanced at the first one to figure out what it represented, and then wished he hadn't. The moire abstract seemed to move by itself in nauseous patterns. Keff hastily glanced away, dashing tears from his eyes and controlling the roil of his stomach.

"Most original," he said, gasping. Chaumel paused briefly in his chattering to beam at Keff's evident perspicacity and pointed out another stomach-twister. Keff carefully kept his gaze aimed below the level of the frames, offering compliments without looking. Staring at the silver magician's heels and the hem of his robe, Keff padded faster to catch up.

They passed over a threshold into an anteroom where several servants were sweeping and dusting. Except when raising their eyes to acknowledge the presence of their master, they also made a point of watching the ground in front of them. It was no consolation to Keff to realize that others had the same reaction to the "artwork."

Chaumel was the only bare-skin Keff saw. The staff appeared to consist solely of fur-skinned Noble Primitives, like Brannel, but instead of having just four fingers on each hand, some had all five.

"The missing links?" Keff asked Carialle. These beings looked like a combination between Chaumel's people and Brannel's. Though their faces were hairy, they did not bear the animal cast to their features that the various villagers had. They looked more humanly diversified. "Do you suppose that the farther you go away from the overlords, the more changes you find in facial structure?" He stopped to study the face of a furry-faced maiden, who reddened under her pelt and dropped her eyes shyly. She twisted her duster between her hands.

"Ahem! A geographical cause isn't logical," Carialle said, "although you might postulate interbreeding between the two races. That would mean that the races are genetically close. Very interesting."

Chaumel, noticing he'd lost his audience, detoured back, directed Keff away from the serving maid and toward a stone archway.

"Will you look at the workmanship in that?" Keff said, admiringly. "Very fine, Chaumel."

"I'm glad you . . ." the magiman said, moving on through the doorway into a wide corridor. "Now, this . . . my father . . ."

"This" proved to be a tapestry woven, Carialle informed Keff after a microscopic peek, of dyed vegetable fibers blended with embroidered colorful figures in six-pack hair.

"Old," she said. "At least four hundred years. And expert craftwork, I might add."

"Lovely," Keff said, making sure the contact button scanned it in full for his Xenology records. "Er, high worker-ship, Chaumel."

His host was delighted, and took him by the arm to show him every item displayed in the long hall.

Chaumel was evidently an enthusiastic collector of objets d'art and, except for the nauseating pictures, had a well-developed appreciation of beauty. Keff had no trouble admiring handsomely made chairs, incidental tables, and pedestals of wood and stone; more tapestries; pieces of scientific equipment that had fallen into disuse and been adapted for other purposes. A primitive chariot, evidently the precursor of the elegant chairs Chaumel and his people used, was enshrined underneath the picture of a bearded man in a silver robe. Chaumel also owned some paintings and representational art executed with great skill that were not only not uncomfortable but a pleasure to behold. Keff exclaimed over everything, recording it, hoping that he was also gathering clues to help free Carialle so they could leave Ozran as soon as possible.

A few of Chaumel's treasures absolutely defied description. Keff would have judged them to be sculpture or statuary, but some of the vertical and horizontal surfaces showed wear, the polished appearance of long use. They were furniture, but for what kind of being?

"What is this, Chaumel?" Keff asked, drawing the magiman's attention to a small grouping arranged in an alcove. He pointed to one item. It looked like a low-set painter's easel from which a pair of hardwood tines rose in a V. "This is very old."

"Ah!" the magiman said, eagerly. " . . . from old, old day-day." IT promptly interpreted into "from ancient days," and recorded the usage.

"I'm getting a reading of between one thousand six hundred and one thousand nine hundred years," Carialle said, confirming Chaumel's statement. The magiman gave Keff a curious look.

"Surely your people didn't use these things," Keff said "Can't sit on them, see?" He made as if to sit down on the narrow horizontal ledge at just above knee level.

Chaumel grinned and shook his head. "Old Ones used . . . sit-lie," he said.

"They weren't humanoid?" Keff asked, and then clarified as the magiman looked confused "Not like you, or me, or your servants?"

"Not, not. Before New Ones, we."

"Then the humanoids were not the native race on this planet," Carialle said excitedly into Keff's implant. "They are travelers. They settled here alongside the indigenous beings and shared their culture."

"That would explain the linguistic anomalies," Keff said. "And that awful artwork in the grand hall." Then speaking aloud, he added, "Are there any of the Old Ones left, Chaumel?"

"Not, not. Many days gone. Worked, move from empty land to mountain. Gave us, gave them." Chaumel struggled with a pantomime. "All . . . gone."

"I think I understand. You helped them move out of the valleys, and they gave you . . . what? Then they all died? What caused that? A plague?"

Chaumel suddenly grew wary. He muttered and moved on to the next grouping of artifacts. He paused dramatically before one item displayed on a wooden pedestal. The gray stone object, about fifty centimeters high, resembled an oddly twisted urn with an off-center opening.

"Old-Old-Ones," he said with awe, placing his hands possessively on the urn.

"Old Ones—Ancient Ones?" Keff asked, gesturing one step farther back with his hand.

"Yes," Chaumel said. He caressed the stone. Keff moved closer so Carialle could take a reading through the contact button.

"It's even older than the Old Ones' chair, if that's what that was. Much older. Ask if this is a religious artifact. Are the Ancient Ones their gods?" Carialle asked.

"Did you, your father-father, bring Ancient Ones with you to Ozran?" Keff asked.

"Not our ancestors," Chaumel said, laying three imaginary objects in a row. "Ozran: Ancient Ones; Old Ones; New Ones, we. Ancient," he added, holding out the wand in his belt.

"Carialle, I think he means that artifact is a leftover from the original culture. It is ancient, but there has been some modification on it, dating a couple thousand years back." Then aloud, he said to Chaumel. "So they passed usable items down. Did the Ancient Ones look like the Old Ones? Were they their ancestors?"

Chaumel shrugged.

"It looks like an entirely different culture, Keff," Carialle said, processing the image and running a schematic overlay of all the pieces in the hall. "There're very few Ancient One artifacts here to judge by, but my reconstruction program suggests different body types for the Ancients and the Old Ones. Similar, though. Both species were upright and had rearward-bending, jointed lower limbs—can't tell how many, but the Old One furniture is built for larger creatures. Not quite as big as humanoids, though."

"It sounds as if one species succeeded after another," Keff said. "The Old Ones moved in to live with the Ancient Ones, and many generations later after the Ancients died off, the New Ones arrived and cohabited with the Old Ones. They are the third in a series of races to live on this planet: the aborigines, the Old Ones, and the New Ones, or magic-using humanoids."

Carialle snorted. "Doesn't say much for Ozran as a host for life-forms, if two intelligent races in a row died off within a few millennia."

"And the humanoids are reduced to a nontechnological existence," Keff said, only half listening to Chaumel, who was lecturing him with an intent expression on his broad-cheeked face. "Could it have something to do with the force-field holding you down? They got stuck here?"

"Whatever trapped me did it selectively, Keff!" Carialle said. "I'd landed and taken off six times on Ozran already. It was deliberate, and I want to know who and why."

"Another mystery to investigate. But I also want to know why the Old Ones moved up here, away from their source of food," Keff said. "Since they seem to be dependant on what's grown here, that's a sociological anomaly."

"Ah," Carialle said, reading newly translated old data from IT. "The Old Ones didn't move up here with the New Ones' help, Keff. They were up here when the humanoids came. They found Ancient artifacts in the valleys."

"So these New Ones had some predilection for talent when they came here, but their contact with the Old Ones increased it to what we see in them now. Two space-going races, Carialle!" Keff said, greatly excited. "I want to know if we can find out more about the pure alien culture. Later on, let's see if we can trace them back to their original systems. Pity there's so little left: after several hundred years of humanoid rule, it's all mixed up together."

"Isn't the synthesis as rare?" Carialle asked, pointedly.

"In our culture, yes. Makes it obvious where the sign language comes from, too," Keff said. "It's a relic from one of the previous races—useful symbology that helps make the magic work. The Old Ones may never have shared the humanoid language, being the host race, but somehow they made themselves understood to the newcomers. Worth at least a paper to Galactic Geographic. Clearly, Chaumel here doesn't know what the Ancients were like."

The magiman, watching Keff talking to himself, heard his name and Keff's question. He shook his head regretfully. "I do not. Much before days of me."

"Where do your people come from?" Keff asked. "What star, where out there?" He gestured up at the sky.

"I do not know that also. Where from do yours come?" Chaumel asked, a keen eye holding Keff's.

The brawn tried to think of a way to explain the Central Worlds with the limited vocabulary at his disposal and raised his hands helplessly.

"Vain hope." Carialle sighed. "I'm still trying to find any records of settlements in this sector. Big zero. If I could get a message out, I could have Central Worlds do a full-scan search of the old records."

"So where do the Noble Primitives fit in, Chaumel?" Keff asked, throwing a friendly arm over the man's shoulder before he could start a lecture on the next objet d'art. He pointed at a male servant wearing a long, white robe, who hurried away, wide-eyed, when he noticed the bare-skinned ones looking at him. "I notice that the servants here have lighter pelts than the people in the farm village." He gestured behind him, hoping that Chaumel would understand he meant where they had just come from. He tweaked a lock of his own hair, rubbing his fingers together to indicate "thin," then ran his fingers down his own face and held out his hand.

"They're handsomer. And some of them have five fingers, like mine." Keff waggled his forefinger. "Why do the ones in the valley have only four?" He bent the finger under his palm.

"Oh," Chaumel said, laughing. He stated something in a friendly, offhanded way that the IT couldn't translate, scissors-chopping his own forefinger with his other hand to demonstrate what he meant. " . . . when of few days—babies. Low mind. . . . no curiosity . . . worker." He made the scissors motion again.

"What?" Carialle shrieked in Keff's ear. "It's not a mutation. It's mutilation. There aren't two brands of humanoids, just one, with most of the poor things exploited by a lucky few."

Keff was shocked into silence. Fortunately, Chaumel seemed to expect no reply. Carialle continued to speak in a low voice while Keff nodded and smiled at the magiman.

"Moreover, he's been referring to the Noble Primitives as property. When he mentioned his possessions, IT went back and translated his term for the villagers as 'chattel.' I do not like these people. Evil wizards, indeed!"

"Er, very nice," Keff said in Ozran, for lack of any good reply. Chaumel beamed.

"We care for them, we who commune with the Core of Ozran. We lead our weaker brothers. We guard as they working hard in the valleys to raise food for us all."

"Enslave them, you mean," Carialle sniffed. "And they live up here in comfort while Brannel's people freeze. He looks so warm and friendly—for a slave trader. Look at his eyes. Dead as microchips."

"Weaker? Do you mean feeble-minded? The people down in the valleys have strong bodies but, er, they don't seem very bright," Keff said. "These, your servants, are much more intelligent than any of the ones we met." He didn't mention Brannel.

"Ah," Chaumel said, guardedly casual, "the workers eat stupid, not question . . . who know better, overlords."

"You mean you put something in the food to keep them stupid and docile so they won't question their servitude? That's monstrous," Keff said, but he kept smiling.

Chaumel didn't understand the last word. He bowed deeply. "Thank you. Use talent, over many years gone, we give them," he pantomimed over his own wrist and arm, showed it growing thicker, "more skin, hair, grow dense flesh . . ."

IT riffled through a list of synonyms. Keff seized upon one. "Muscles?" he asked. IT repeated Chaumel's last word, evidently satisfied with Keff's definition.

"Yes," Chaumel said. "Good for living . . . cold valleys. Hard work!"

"You mean you can skimp on the central heat if you give them greater endurance," Carialle said, contemptuously. "You bloodsucker."

Chaumel frowned, almost as if he had heard Carialle's tone.

"Hush! Er, I don't know if this is a taboo question, Chaumel," Keff began, rubbing his chin with thumb and forefinger, "but you interbreed with the servant class, too, don't you? Bare-skins with fur-skins, make babies?"

"Not I," the silver magiman explained hastily. "But yes. Some lower . . . mages and magesses have faces with hair. Never make their places as mages of . . . but not everyone is . . . sent for mightiness."

"Destined for greatness," Keff corrected IT. IT repeated the word. "So why are you not great? I mean," he rephrased his statement for tact, "not one of the mages of—IT, put in that phrase he used?"

"Oh, I am good—satisfied to be what I am," Chaumel said, complacently folding his fingers over his well-padded rib cage.

"If they're already being drugged, why amputate their fingers?" Carialle wanted to know.

"What do fingers have to do with the magic?" Keff asked, making a hey-presto gesture.

"Ah," Chaumel said. Taking Keff's arm firmly under his own, he escorted him down the hall to a low door set deeply into the stone walls. Servants passing by showed Keff the whites of their eyes as Chaumel slipped the silver wand out of his belt and pointed at the lock. Some of the fur-skins hurried faster as the red fire lanced laserlike into the keyhole. One or two, wearing the same keen expression as Brannel, peered in as the door opened. Shooting a cold glance to speed the nosy ones on their way, Chaumel urged Keff inside.

The darkness lifted as soon as they stepped over the threshold, a milky glow coming directly from the substance of the walls.

"Cari, is that radioactive?" Keff asked. His whisper was amplified in a ghostly rush of sound by the rough stone.

"No. In fact, I'm getting no readings on the light at all. Strange."


"Cut that out," Carialle said sulkily. "I say it's a form of energy with which I am unacquainted."

In contrast to all the other chambers Keff had seen in Chaumel's eyrie, this room had a low, unadorned ceiling of rough granite less than an arm's length above their heads. Keff felt as though he needed to stoop to avoid hitting the roof.

Chaumel moved across the floor like a man in a chapel. The furnishings of the narrow room carried out that impression. At the end opposite the door was a molded, silver table not unlike an altar, upon which rested five objects arranged in a circle on an embroidered cloth. Keff tiptoed forward behind Chaumel.

The items themselves were not particularly impressive: a metal bangle about twelve centimeters across, a silver tube, a flattened disk pierced with half-moon shapes all around the edge, a wedge of clear crystal with a piece of dull metal fused to the blunt end, and a hollow cylinder like an empty jelly jar.

"What are they?" Keff asked.

"Objects of power," Chaumel replied. One by one he lifted them and displayed them for Keff. Returning to the bangle, Chaumel turned it over so Keff could see its inner arc. Five depressions about two centimeters apart were molded into its otherwise smooth curve. In turn, he showed the markings on each one. With the last, he inserted the tips of his fingers into the depressions and wielded it away from Keff.

"Ah," Keff said, enlightened. "You need five digits to use these."

"So the amputation is to keep the servers from organizing a palace revolt," Carialle said. "Any uppity server just wouldn't have the physical dexterity to use them."

"Mmm," Keff said. "How old are they?" He moved closer to the altar and bent over the cloth.

"Old, old," Chaumel said, parting the jelly jar.

"Old Ones," Carialle verified, running a scan through Keff's ocular implants. "So is the bangle. The other three are Ancient, with some subsequent modifications by the Old Ones. All of them have five pressure plates incorporated into the design. That's why Brannel tried to take my palette. It has five depressions, just like these items. He probably thought it was a power piece, like these."

"There's coincidence for you: both the alien races here were pentadactyl, like humans. I wonder if that's a recurring trait throughout the galaxy for technologically capable races," Keff said. "Five-fingered hands."

Chaumel certainly seemed proud of his. Setting down the jelly jar, he rubbed his hands together, then flicked invisible dust motes off his nails, taking time to admire both fronts and backs.

"Well, they are shapely hands," Carialle said. "They wouldn't be out of place in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes except for the bizarre proportions."

Keff took a good look at Chaumel's hands. For the first time he noticed that the thumbs, which he had noted as being rather long, bore lifelike prostheses, complete with nails and tiny wisps of hair, that made the tips fan out to the same distance as the forefingers. The little fingers were of equal length to the ring fingers, jarring the eye, making the fingers look like a thick fringe cut straight across. Absently conscious of Keff's stare, Chaumel pulled at his little fingers.

"Is he trying to make them longer by doing that?" Carialle asked. "It's physically impossible, but I suppose telling him that won't make him stop. Superstitions are superstitions."

"That's er, grotesque, Chaumel," Keff said, smiling with what he hoped was an expression of admiration.

"Thank you, Keff." The silver magiman bowed.

"Show me how the objects of power work," Keff said, pointing at the table. "I'd welcome a chance to watch without being the target."

Chaumel was all too happy to oblige.

"Now you see how these are," he said graciously. He chose the ring and the tube, putting his favorite, the wand, back in its belt holster. "This way."

On the way out of the narrow room, Chaumel resumed his monologue. This time it seemed to involve the provenance and ownership of the items.

"We are proud of our toys," Carialle said deprecatingly. "Nothing up my sleeve, alakazam!"

"Whoops!" Keff said, as Chaumel held out his hand and a huge crockery vase appeared on the palm. "Alakazam, indeed!"

With a small smile, Chaumel blew on the crock, sending it flying down the hall as if skidding on ice. He raised the tube, aimed it, and squeezed lightly. The crock froze in place, then, in delayed reaction, it burst apart into a shower of jet-propelled sand, peppering the walls and the two men.

"Marvelous!" Keff said, applauding. He spat out sand "Bravo! Do it again!"

Obligingly, Chaumel created a wide ceramic platter. "My mother this belonged to. I do not ever like this," he said. With a twist of his wrist, it followed the crock. Instead of the tube, the silver magiman operated the ring. With a crack, the platter exploded into fragments. A glass goblet, then a pitcher appeared out of the air. Chaumel set them dancing around one another, then fused them into one piece with a dash of scarlet lightning from his wand. They dropped to the ground, spraying fragments of glass everywhere.

"And what do you do for an encore?" Keff asked, surveying the hall, now littered with debris.

"Hmmph!" Chaumel said. He waved the wand, and three apron-clad domestics appeared, followed by brooms and pails. Leaving the magical items floating on the air, he clapped his hands together. The servers set hastily to work cleaning up. Chaumel folded his arms together with satisfaction and turned a smug face to Keff.

"I see. You get all the fun, and they do all the nasty bits," Keff said, nodding. "Bravo anyway."

"I was following the energy buildup during that little Wild West show," Carialle said in Keff's ear. "There is no connection between what Chaumel does with his toys, that hum in the floors, and any energy source except a slight response from that random mess in the sky. Geothermal is silent. And before you ask, he hasn't got a generator. Ask him where they get their power from."

"Where do your magical talents come from?" Keff asked the silver magiman. He imitated Potria's spell-casting technique, gathering in armfuls of air and thrusting his hands forward. Chaumel ducked to one side. His face paled, and he stared balefully at Keff.

"I guess it isn't just sign language," Keff said sheepishly. "Genuine functionalism of symbols. Sorry for the breach in etiquette, old fellow. But could the New Ones do that," he started to make the gesture but pointedly held back from finishing it, "when they came to Ozran?"

"Some. Most learned from Old Ones," Chaumel said, not really caring. He flipped the wand into the air. It twirled end over end, then vanished and reappeared in his side-slung holster.

"Flying?" Keff said, imitating the way the silver magiman's chair swooped and turned. "Learned from Old Ones?"

"Yes. Gave learning to us for giving to them."

"Incredible," Keff said, with a whistle. "What I wouldn't give for magic lessons. But where does the power come from?"

Chaumel looked beatific. "From the Core of Ozran," he said, hands raised in a mystical gesture.

"What is that? Is it a physical thing, or a philosophical center?"

"It is the Core," Chaumel said, impatiently, shaking his head at Keff's denseness. The brawn shrugged.

"The Core is the Core," he said. "Of course. Non-sequitur. Chaumel, my ship can't move from where it landed. Does the Core of Ozran have something to do with that?"

"Perhaps, perhaps."

Keff pressed him. "I'd really like an answer to that, Chaumel. It's sort of important to me, in a strange sort of way," he said, shrugging diffidently.

Chaumel irritably shook his head and waved his hands.

"I'll tackle him again later, Cari," Keff said under his breath.

"Now is better . . . What's that sound?" Carialle said, interrupting herself.

Keff looked around. "I didn't hear anything."

But Chaumel had. Like a hunting dog hearing a horn, he turned his head. Keff felt a rise of static, raising the hair on the back of his neck.

"There it is again," Carialle said. "Approximately fifty thousand cycles. Now I'm showing serious power fluctuations where you are. What Chaumel was doing in the hallway was a spit in the ocean compared with this."

Chaumel grabbed Keff's arm and made a spiraling gesture upward with one finger.

"This way, in haste!" Chaumel said, pushing him through the hallway toward the great room and the landing pad beyond. His hand flew above his head, repeating the spiral over and over. "Haste, haste!"



Back | Next